Between a frog and a hard place

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A toad that took refuge in my parents’ greenhouse
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Dad holds up the toad. His golden eyes show that he’s not a frog

The first house I owned had a lovely back garden with a pond. We had planned to fill in the pond as with a young toddler, it was a bit of a hazard.

But once we’d lived in the house a while, we realised that the pond was absolutely teeming with life, and if you sat a while and observed, you would witness non-stop activity among the water, insect and bird population. I soon began to realise that if we filled it in, all these amazing creatures would lose their natural habitat.

So we kept it, and fitted a grille across the top to prevent our wobbly toddler from toppling in. It was around March or April time that the pond was at its noisiest, with a rather amorous community of frogs making their presence known, and the fruit of their activities would soon become visible in the form of masses of frogspawn lying across the surface.

Sometimes there would be so much of it, we’d wonder if our small pond could sustain the new generation but, it seems, there can never be too much frogspawn. This is because only about one out of every 50 eggs laid will ever make it to adulthood, thanks to them being hunted by a variety of predators at every stage of their lives. Not sure lawnmowers count as predators but ours certainly claimed its fair share of victims hiding in the long grass.

In my dad’s column from 2nd June 1979, he talks about superstitions around toads, and it made me wonder if you, dear reader, would know the difference between a frog and a toad. For the record, frogs have smoother skin and longer back legs which means they can hop quite a distance, especially when startled from a hiding place (sadly not always in time to beat the blades of the mower!).

Toads on the other hand have warty skin, golden eyes and crawl rather than hop. Frogs breathe through their skin, and need to stay near shallow water, whereas a toad’s skin is more waterproof, so they can survive long periods away from water. Toads also tend to stay still if they are startled.

I had believed that toads were bigger too, but in fact, there is not that much difference in length, with male frogs reaching up to 8cm, while male toads can be up to 9cm. Females of both species are larger and grow to around 13cm. The main difference is their shape. While frogs are slim and athletic-looking, toads are like their couch-potato siblings, with dumpier, more rounded forms.

There are just two species of frog and two species of toads in the UK, although you are most likely to only see the common varieties as the others are rare and found in very few areas (the pool frog and the natterjack toad). Common frogs tend to be green or brown, but can be many shades, from cream and red to orange or black, while common toads are mainly various shades of greeny-brown.

In my dad’s column, he talks about an old belief that toads were able to live for centuries without food or moisture at the centre of a large rock or boulder. The belief followed reports of quarrymen breaking open rocks to find what they thought were mummified toads, only for the creatures to suddenly start moving.

This belief persisted until well into the nineteenth century, and my dad quotes the Rev George Young, writing in his 1828 ‘Geological Survey of the Yorkshire Coast’, who was talking about incidents of finding toads within rocks. “We are the more particular in recording these facts because some modern philosophers have attempted to explode such accounts as wholly fabulous,” writes the esteemed reverend.

Various attempts were made to scientifically prove and disprove the belief. One nineteenth-century scientist recreated the conditions by placing toads in hollowed-out rocks which he then re-sealed and buried in his garden for a year. When he dug them up again, most were dead. Amazingly, one or two were still alive, although only just. So he buried the poor things again for another year and, unsurprisingly, none survived the second trip. Poor toads! Thankfully, such cruel experiments are not acceptable these days.

I’ve heard it said that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming. Well, I’d better pucker up then.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 31st May and the Gazette & Herald on 29th May 2019

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